Some people rage against GM food: hi‑tech musicians, on the other hand,rage against GM synths. But how justified is their hostility? Nicholas Rowland takes on Korg's latest black box...
It's an indication of just how far technology has come when the arrival of a new GM‑compatible synth tends to be accompanied by the sound of stifled yawns, rather than popping champagne corks and fireworks. Not too long ago, if someone had announced a half‑pint‑sized box stuffed with 1000+ high‑quality sounds, extensive programmability, a stack of effects and a MIDI implementation that made War And Peace look like a flyer for a car boot sale, they would have drawn gasps of amazement and caused those of a nervous disposition to turn pale and fall to the floor. Now, this kind of advanced spec is so much considered the norm, it hardly merits a second glance: meanwhile, the gasps of amazement are reserved for retro‑inspired gizmos that feature three knobs, a neon paint job, a couple of dodgy oscillators and very little else.
Maybe it's the connotation of those words 'GM/XG/GS‑compatible', which, in many people's minds, suggest that the unit in question has gone through a process of dumbing down. It's true that early GM modules were fairly basic, literally offering only the 128 patches of the GM soundset (of which at least 10 percent are a complete waste of space) — but these days, the average mid‑ to upper‑range GM‑compatible keyboard or module tends to be a very sophisticated beast indeed, usually offering tremendous value in the great 'bang for your buck' scheme of things.
Which brings us to Korg's latest "multitimbraler Klangerzeuger" (oh, it sounds so sexy in German!), the NX5R — billed by the company's spin doctors as "the next generation of half‑rack multi‑media sound modules." For those in danger of losing the plot in terms of model numbers — and it's easy to do so when most products appear to be named after robotic extras from sci‑fi B‑movies — this new module takes up the baton where Korg's previous model, the NS5R, left off. Except, to confound the notion that this really is a next‑generation product, the NX5R is the NS5R, albeit with the addition of an XG‑compatible synth on a daughterboard. Now, as NS5R owners are already aware, the installation of said daughterboard was an expansion option offered with the original model right from the word go, though obviously at a price above the NS5R's original £599 price tag. As it is, the NX5R weighs in at £549, so while the the cynics may argue that this X‑rated offering is not exactly new, they can't deny that the package at least comes cheaper than it used to!
There are plenty of bread‑and‑butter patches that may sound unspectacular in isolation, but fit the bill nicely when called to perform in a full mix. There are also plenty of spectacular 'synthy' sounds, with sweeps, whooshes and rattling loops aplenty...
The NS5R was reviewed back in the February 1997 issue of SOS, where it scored highly in terms of its user‑friendly interface and the sheer quantity and quality of sounds and effects on offer. As we at SOS don't expect you to have elephantine memories (otherwise there'd be nothing for the back issues department to do) I'll run the basic specification past you again. Built around Korg's AI2 tone‑generating system, the 'S' part of the equation offers a still‑impressive 12Mb of waveform memory, containing 1177 sound programs (128 of which are user‑storable in RAM), 512 combination voices (again with 128 in RAM), and 31 drum kits. The NS5R also boasted two independent stereo multi‑effects units with a choice of 47 effects per unit, along with 64‑note polyphony and 32‑part multitimbrality.
To this, Korg have welded on what is in effect a separate 32‑note polyphonic, AWM2, XG‑compatible synth, thus adding another 480 extra voices — or 589 if you're using the daughterboard in its TG300B emulation mode — to the NX5R's sound count. The daughterboard also boasts three effects units of its own, one with three types of reverb, another with 11 types of chorus, and a third with 42 types of variation effect. So, just to round up all the figures, what you've got is a split‑personality synth module offering — take a deep breath — 96‑voice polyphony, 48‑part multitimbrality, 2,365 sounds, and 52 different drum kits. Obviously, it fully supports the XG (and therefore the GM) standard, as well as providing sound maps for GS and for the Korg Super series — in other words, sound maps compatible with their older generation of X5 synths and tone modules.
Physically, the NX5R is laid out exactly like its predecessor. Most of the front panel is taken up by a large backlit LCD which, once you've worked out how to switch the unit on (hint: push the volume knob in) glows a friendly orange before reverting to a soothing green. Small squidgy buttons and a chunky rotary dial transport you relatively painlessly around the unit's many functions. Most of these, along with their associated parameters, are represented by icons, with occasional pop‑up boxes for good measure — which you're going to appreciate, once you start drilling down through the extensive layers of sound‑programming function menus. It's all fairly intuitive, even without recourse to the hefty 200+ pages of documentation supplied. Most of the time, though, you'll be working on the top‑level screen, which allows you to assign sounds to channels and edit their volumes, pan positions, and effects send and type.
Like most modules designed for the multimedia/desktop music market, the NX5R has a built‑in serial computer interface that allows direct connection to a Mac or PC. Included with the module are both a PC and Mac floppy disk containing the neat NS5R Soundeditor program (but oddly, no XG editor), a Standard MIDI File converter, and a multi‑port driver for your computer's serial interface. The advantage of using this is that you will then be able to access all 48 MIDI channels independently, and hence achieve the theoretical maximum 48‑part multitimbrality — if you control the unit using its single MIDI In port, rather than the serial interface, you're limited to just 16 MIDI channels.
By default, the AI2 synth engine occupies MIDI channels 1‑32, while the XG synth occupies channels 33‑48. You might be wondering how you can then 'get at' the XG voices if you're not using the serial interface, and thus have only 16 MIDI channels to play with. The answer lies in the NX5R's 'virtual MIDI port' facility which, on the NS5R, enabled you to route MIDI signals through the module and out to an external synth. On the X version, this feature is used to access the XG board: in other words, if you assign a MIDI channel to port A or B, then you'll be able to play sounds from the AI2 synth engine: if you assign them to C, then you'll be able to play sounds from the XG daughterboard.
Having been suitably stunned by the onboard demo, the first action of the curious will be to work their way through the preset sounds. I won't dwell too much on these here, basically because there's not much new to say. Korg's AI2 PCM‑based synthesis has been around for more than a decade now, so it's pretty much tried and tested (some might say tired and tested, though to my ears there's still plenty of mileage left in there yet). Long‑time Korg users will be familiar with the basic organisation of the AI2 sounds: there are 528 PCM multisample building blocks, with program sounds comprised of either one or two of these waveforms, and combination sounds made up of as many as eight individual waveforms. In terms of their range, the AI2 sounds cover just about all the corners. There are plenty of bread‑and‑butter patches that may sound unspectacular in isolation, but fit the bill nicely when called to perform in a full mix. There are also plenty of spectacular 'synthy' sounds, with sweeps, whooshes and rattling loops aplenty — the kind of sounds that, when it comes down to it, may impress friends and influence people, but are often completely out of place in most people's music.
The XG side follows the usual format — well, that's the whole point of standard formats, isn't it? In terms of content and organisation, you know exactly what you're getting before you switch the unit on. There's a basic bank of sounds organised according to the GM format, plus a number of variation sounds scattered among banks 1 to 101. These are complemented by a bank of 11 drum kits, plus the inevitable SFX bank of off‑the‑wall noises. In terms of quality, the sounds are all well up to scratch. But I have to say that in terms of what they actually bring to the party apart from XG compatibility, they don't really extend the overall scope of the module that much. I mean, when you've already got various decent piano or string patches available via the AI2 synth engine anyway, you're not gaining much from the presence of a daughterboard that simply offers you a few more variations.
What's also not so good is that while the AI2 section offers extensive sound manipulation via its own front panel, any serious tweaking of the XG sounds will have to be done via external software or hardware. For example, you can select sounds and alter volume, pan, reverb and chorus send from the front panel and set the range of the mod and pitchbend wheels, but not much else.
Another limitation is that, even with the extra sonic power at your fingertips, like the NS5R, the X version still only has two audio outputs. Some will see this as putting something of a lid on the ultimate flexibility of the unit, particularly in terms of applying external effects to sounds. However, by way of compensation (at least for those severely challenged in the mixer input department), the NX5R does have a couple of phono inputs that allow you to feed other instruments through the NX5R without the need for an external mixer. There's also a separate volume control for the output from the daughterboard, though this is on the back panel of the unit.
The NX5R, in its raw state, still offers a huge range of high‑quality sounds, and it's also very easy to program, at least on the AI2 side. And as I said earlier, although getting a little long in the tooth by music technology standards, the AI2 presets still offer plenty of character. My only real criticism is that really serious users might well find the NX5R's format ultimately a little restrictive. For example, although aimed at a slightly different area of the market, Roland's JV series of synths and modules at least offer the opportunity to load some more interesting sounds through the expansion cards. However, anyone wanting a real workhorse module to deal with a variety of musical applications will certainly find the NX5R a friendly companion, particularly where compatibility with GM and its various offshoots is essential.
The daughterboard has two playback modes: XG and TG300B. In XG mode the daughterboard functions as a multitimbral tone generator compatible with the XG spec, whereas in TG300B mode, it is compatible with GM system level 1. You can change the mode via software, but commercial XG or GM MIDI files usually do this for you by including the appropriate mode‑select message right at the start of the song. Incidentally, the AI2 element of the NX5R equation is also fully GM‑compatible, with a number of sound banks offering the GM soundset plus variations.
Sounds on the XG daughterboard are made up of either one or two elements. The 32‑note polyphony is worked out in terms of elements — in other words, using a double‑element voice will take up two units of polyphony. By default, the daughterboard has a natural order of priority for assigning notes when the maximum polyphony is exceeded, with channel 10 (drums) given highest priority and the channels 1‑16 given descending levels of priority. By assigning musically important parts to high‑priority channels, you help ensure that your precious soaring lead synth line stays intact even when note‑stealing occurs. An element‑reserve function also allows you to reserve a certain number of notes for particular channels, so that those channels will always be able to play their full parts, whatever their priority in the NX5R's overall scheme of things. Refer to your user manual for more details!
- More presets than you can shake a MIDI lead at.
- Built‑in PC/Mac interface.
- Extensive programming of AI2 sounds from front panel.
- Only two outputs.
- Poor integration of XG board into overall concept of unit.
- Nothing really new in terms of the sounds.
Although we've seen and heard it all before, the NX5R remains a powerful and flexible choice for those wanting compatibility with standard formats.